Privatization would ship prisoners out

Last modified: 5/4/2011 12:00:00 AM
The Concord state prison would lose as many as 600 inmates to private facilities under a cost-cutting proposal headed for a vote today in the state Senate.

The legislation requires the Department of Corrections to contract with private correctional facilities to house the inmates and counts on it doing so at a savings: The same amendment would cut $10.5 million from the department's budget over the next two years.

But a spokesman for the Department of Corrections said officials do not know if any money would be saved by paying a private company to house the inmates. Spokesman Jeff Lyons said Commissioner William Wrenn saw the proposal for the first time last Thursday, when Chairman Chuck Morse brought it before the Senate Finance Committee. Lyons said the department has no hard numbers for the cost of paying a company to house inmates, but he expressed doubt that it would save money.

"The commissioner indicated we would look into it, but we know it would probably be an additional cost for the department," Lyons said.

Morse asked Wrenn at a meeting last month to examine any possibility for saving money by closing a housing unit at the Concord prison. The state's largest prison, located two miles from the State House, houses about 1,356 male inmates. Most live in one of three main housing units.

Wrenn said after that meeting that department officials would weigh the financial impact of paying a facility to house enough inmates to close a unit. But he warned that closing a unit might not yield savings and said senators would have to restore money to his budget to avoid closing the state prison in Berlin.

Since then, corrections officials had been reviewing ways to cut costs and waiting to be called before the Finance Committee, Lyons said.

Committee Vice Chairman Bob Odell said the proposal was brought forward after the Department of Corrections failed to bring forward any ways to cut its budget.

"The department did not propose any new initiatives to save money or to change the way it does its business," Odell said.

Odell, a Republican from Lempster, said it would be up to Wrenn to find a contract that would deliver the $10.5 million in savings. But he said the figure makes sense when the average cost of housing an inmate is compared with anecdotal evidence of the cost at private facilities.

Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, the lone Democrat on the Finance Committee, cast the only vote against the proposal last week. D'Allesandro, who lives in Manchester, said he had too little information about the proposal. A meeting yesterday with Wrenn left him believing the privatization would not achieve the required savings, he said.

"I really didn't see any materials that indicated we could save $10.5 million," D'Allesandro said. "I didn't know where they were going, how they were going to get there, what the costs would be."

The legislation also prohibits the Department of Corrections from closing the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin. Wrenn has said budget cuts proposed by the House would force him to close the prison. When he testified before the Finance Committee, Morse said senators would not agree to close the prison because it operates very efficiently.

If the proposal passes the Senate, the House may be amenable. Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt said yesterday that House Republicans are generally supportive of privatizing services.

"We believe that responsible privatization enhances efficiency and will save much-needed resources that can be shifted to areas in Health and Human Services, which require it greatly," Bettencourt said.

A spokesman for Gov. John Lynch said the governor's office has yet to see an analysis of the proposal. Spokesman Colin Manning said the office would want to know where the inmates would be sent and how much money would be saved.

The Department of Corrections was the only major state agency to receive increased funding in the budget proposed by Lynch. The department is budgeted at $106 million next year. Lynch recommended a budget of $112 million next year and $113 million in 2013. The House passed a budget that cuts $5.9 million from the governor's proposal.

A database maintained by the Association of Private Correctional & Treatment Organizations shows few facilities in the Northeast. The database identifies private prisons in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

(Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or klangley@cmonitor.com.)




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